Sight Lines

The American artist Man Ray had his first Paris show at the gallery Librairie Six in December 1921. The opening party, as recounted in the catalogue of "Man Ray's Man Rays," an exhibition now on view at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, was one of the principal Dada events of the season. The Paris gallery was decorated with dozens of helium balloons, ceremoniously popped at a designated moment by guests wielding lighted cigarettes. In the midst of this artistic merriment, Man Ray stepped out for a drink with a friend, the composer Erik Satie. On their way back to the opening, the artist bought a flatiron and some nails, then glued the heads of the nails to the sole of the iron. Calling the resulting "work" Le Cadeau (The Gift), he added it to the photographs and paintings on display in the gallery.

True to its name, the construction quickly disappeared from its place, but Man Ray later re-created the work, and it remains one of the most widely recognized surrealist objects made by a member of the group of artists who gathered in Paris between the two world wars. Although Le Cadeau is not included in the Norton show, two other objects reminiscent of it are present: A sleek, stainless-steel flatiron from 1967, with its title, Phare de la Harpe, etched into its base, has an inviting, tactile quality, quite the opposite of the aggressiveness expressed by the earlier spiked iron; and an undated miniature iron, fit for a doll's house, is painted red and enclosed in a leather box.

These two objects are displayed in a Plexiglas case along with a tiny cast-metal sculpture of a faceless nude woman, number four from an edition of eleven. Small-scale pieces -- personal-size -- with an implicit intimacy, they are representative of many of the 142 works included in "Man Ray's Man Rays." The constructions, photographs, drawings, and prints exhibited at the Norton are part of the estate left to the artist's second wife, Juliet Man Ray, when he died in 1976 at age 84. While some of these works have been loaned previously for major Man Ray exhibitions, this is the first show to focus on the holdings of the U.S.-based Man Ray Trust. (The rest of the estate's holding are in France, and have been ceded as patrimony to the French National Museums.)

Both informative and nostalgic, this biographical overview of works left to the artist's family traces the multifaceted genius of Man Ray, born Emmanuel Rudnitzky in Philadelphia in 1890. During his lifetime, Man Ray was known primarily in the U.S. as a portrait and fashion photographer; in France he was celebrated as a seminal member of the European Dada and surrealism movements. He later became something of an avant-garde cult figure, and ultimately has been recognized, in every medium he explored, as one of the most transcendental and influential artists of this century.

At the Norton, a mobile made of hangers that resembles a flock of birds in flight swings from the ceiling in the first of two exhibition rooms. A 1920 version of the same construction can be seen in a photograph from that time elsewhere in the room; it also appears in a 1960s photo of the artist's Paris studio.

The earliest work in the show is a drawing of a nude from 1912, when Man Ray was beginning his career as an artist in New York City. -- series of bright geometric prints called The Revolving Doors, visually pleasing but artistically immature, is also present from this period. More interesting are early photographs, which foreshadow Man Ray's later artistic experimentation with the camera. He makes a visual pun, combining the torso of a nude model with a coat rack, in 1920's Dada Photo (Coatstand). Also around this time, Man Ray made his first, groundbreaking conceptual photos; after he photographed his constructions, he destroyed the actual objects, thus leaving the picture to stand as a work of art in itself.

In New York, Man Ray met Marcel Duchamp, then in 1921 followed him to Paris, where the American artist made a living as a photographer of artworks and other artists. Vintage silver prints of widely published portraits of Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Duchamp, and Fernand Leger are among the early photographs included here. There are several pictures of Kiki of Montparnasse -- artist's model, muse, and Man Ray's mistress -- including a later print of the famous 1924 photo Le Violin d'Ingres, with Kiki's curvaceous backside depicted as a violin. The photographer Lee Miller, Man Ray's assistant and lover, is seen in several portraits, most memorably as a very young woman in one undated photo. Miller also served as a model for the outstanding surrealist photo Two Midgets With Lee Miller's Legs, from 1933.

More informal photographs portray the camaraderie of the artists' community at the time. Group Including Georges Malleine and Robert Desnos shows two men kissing playfully, while another pair looks on, and a fifth person stares bleary-eyed at the camera. A later photograph, 1958's Jacqueline, Picasso, Toreador, Juliet and Man Ray at La Californie, catches the group enjoying a summer afternoon.

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